Arctic Images, Art and the Inuit Culture
The indigenous people of the Arctic look very much alike, even though they inhabit the huge expanse of land from the Pacific Coast of Alaska to the shores of Greenland, but they also differ in many ways, both before recorded history and now. For example, they came to North America at widely differing time periods, separated by thousands of years; they live in a wide range of geographical locations and environmental conditions, some near the sea, others near the tundra plains, some at extreme northern latitudes, and still others in mountain ranges and throughout their time, they have used differing, but increasingly sophisticated types of technology to survive the harsh polar climate. These differences have resulted in their having many individual group names, the most well-known of these are Eskimo, Yuit, Upik, and Inuit. However, in 1977, polar people themselves adopted, “Inuit” as the term to describe themselves collectively, so that term will be used here.
History of the Inuit People and their Art
Houston introduced Inuit Print Making in Cape Dorset in the late 1950’s and it has also gained widespread popularity among artists across the Arctic and collectors around the world. It remains second to carving in overall art activity among Inuit people, but it is reported to provide the best return to southern collectors. Paintings have been produced by Inuit artists as well, but have not gained much popularity among artists or collectors. However, wall hangings, either appliquéd or woven, are apparently highly valued by some collectors, but they have also not reached the popularity of carving or print making.
Paul has been collecting Inuit art since 1988 and, although his collection is modest, he has had the opportunity to see thousands of pieces during his Arctic travels and during three visits to the four major wholesale houses in Toronto. He also had the opportunity to spend two days at the Inuvik Northern Arts Fair, where he saw carvings and visited with carvers from all corners of the Canadian North.
Conclusions. A few conclusions seem appropriate after the past 25-years or so of observing:
The carvings are wonderfully varied, particularly over geographic location
The variation in the shape and form of carvings that is due to the carver’s location has always been known, but the availability of pieces from all corners of the North has been hugely increased by the modern day distribution systems. In addition, the images of Inuit art, even dating back to Dorset and Thule pieces, are readily available on Inuit Art websites across the Internet.
There are many more carvings available now than there were in 1988, particularly among those priced under $500
The general increase in less expensive carvings is, presumably due to the increase in the number of young or relatively new carvers, who because they are just getting started, are willing to sell their works for less.
There is a decrease in carvings from Serpentine and native Arctic soapstone and a corresponding increase in pieces carved from imported stone, including soapstone, alabaster and marble.
In 1988, it appeared that most carvers were using serpentine or other forms of native soapstone, however, now soapstone varieties from all over the world are commonly used and it is not difficult to find carvings in alabaster or even marble.
All these changes lead to speculation about their effect on the art form. There are those who surely feel that the quality of Inuit carving has suffered from the changes pointed out here, that is, increased numbers of lower priced pieces degrades its overall status and value. On the other hand, another conclusion would hold that the increased availability of Inuit art disperses it more widely and has the effect of increasing the world knowledge of Inuit culture, an obviously positive viewpoint. In addition, the use of nonnative carving stone, such as alabaster and marble, also has both positive and negative aspects. Less use of native serpentine and Arctic soapstone varieties may indicate that such materials are becoming more rare or even endangered. On the other hand, increases in the use of other stone, particularly marble, may indicate a step up in the carvers’ skill development. In fact, two veteran carvers Paul talked with in Yellowknife said that they traveled all the way to Colorado just to pick up marble sculpting skills. The other positive about the decreasing use of native Arctic stone is the fact that by the nature of their rarity for carvings, they increase in value. As a result, pieces carved from serpentine should continually increase in value as the number of such carvings decrease.